Authors: Jennifer Chiaverini
Tags: #Historical, #Adult, #Romance, #Mystery
Father smiled, but his eyes showed the strain of hard travel and little sleep. “No, Dorothea. You would have found our journey dull. We reached Virginia, paid the plantation owner the ransom he demanded, and were on our way. It was all very civilized, like any business transaction.” His voice was so mild no one but Dorothea and her mother would have detected his disgust. “Mrs. Wright carried all she possessed wrapped in one small quilt, so it took us only minutes to load the wagon. We left as soon as the horses were rested and stayed one night at the home of a sympathetic friend an hour’s ride north.”
“How is Mrs. Wright settling in?” asked Mother. “What a poor wedding party awaited the bride and groom. I wish we could have prepared a meal for them, but I was not certain when you would return.”
“They’re happy just to be north and home. They weren’t expecting a party. On our way south, we pushed the horses as hard as we could without ruining them.” He glanced at Mother and unhitched the horse. “We arrived a day earlier, but none too soon. A few days more …” He shrugged and led the horse away.
Mother turned toward the house and Dorothea fell in step beside her. “What did he mean, a few days more?” she asked.
Mother was silent for a moment, as if considering how much to say. “The last time Mr. Wright visited Constance, other slaves warned him of rumors that Constance’s master wished to increase his number of slaves.”
“He intends to buy more?”
“No,” said her mother carefully as they entered the house through the kitchen door. “He does not mean to buy them.”
A moment passed before Dorothea understood. “I see.”
“The indignity of having his wife taken by another man—that, Mr. Wright could bear. If Constance could endure it, he certainly could, and they have had to throughout the two years of their marriage. Her owner is a greedy, spiteful man. He only turned his attentions to Constance after she married Mr. Wright, to punish her for marrying and, I suppose, to punish Mr. Wright for being born free in the north. Mr. Wright had to obtain Constance’s freedom before she became pregnant. Her owner would not have allowed her to leave until after her child was born and weaned, if he did not change his mind entirely. There was also no guarantee he would have parted with the child, or sold him to the Wrights rather than another slave owner.”
“Even if the child had been Mr. Wright’s?”
“Even then. And I’m sure I don’t need to remind you never to mention this to the Wrights, or anyone else, for that matter. They have enough to bear without adding the embarrassment of gossip regarding how Mrs. Wright has been violated.”
Dorothea nodded, her heart going out to the Wrights as she imagined what they had suffered, and the certain anguish they had narrowly escaped.
With Dorothea’s help, her mother finished cooking supper with moments to spare. Dorothea was setting the table when they heard Uncle Jacob working the pump handle outside as he washed up for the meal. Dorothea did not look up at the sound of two heavy footsteps on the wooden floor, the sound of the kitchen door closing behind him, and a pause while he removed his boots. She greeted him in a murmur as he pulled back his chair and seated himself; he replied with a nod. Like his sister, Uncle Jacob was thin and tall, but where Lorena was dark he was gray-haired, down to the scruff of beard he shaved off every Saturday night. The hollows in his cheeks were a darker gray; they might have been dimples except he never smiled.
He had not always been so grim, Lorena had confided to Dorothea not long after they came to live with him. As a boy he had been proud and pious, but lighthearted. He had won the affection of the most beautiful girl in the valley and had been the envy of all his friends. His farm had prospered; his wife bore him two fine, strong sons. Then scarlet fever swept through Creek’s Crossing. Uncle Jacob thought they would be safe, isolated on their farm, away from the contagion of the town, but his wife insisted on returning to nurse her stricken parents. She fell ill soon after her parents died, and against his better judgment, Uncle Jacob brought her home to care for her. Lorena offered to take the children to Thrift Farm, but Uncle Jacob thought the sight of her children would encourage his wife to fight off the illness.
Uncle Jacob did not tell his wife when her precious babies died, and to the end, he soothed her with lies about how they grew stronger every day, how they were playing outside or sleeping when she begged to see them. When she died, Uncle Jacob nearly went mad with grief. He would let no one into the house to attend to the bodies. He chased the minister off with his rifle. Only Lorena was permitted to enter, and he sat in his chair by the window, face buried in his hands, responding numbly when Lorena asked him what his wife and children should wear, where he would like them to be laid to rest. He picked a clearing in the maple grove and dug the graves alone, rebuffing Robert’s offers of help.
After a time he regained himself and resumed the work of the farm. He rid the house of all relics of the woman and children he had loved. At first Lorena assumed he would marry again, but his heart had scarred over and would permit no more joy within it. He never again smiled, or laughed, or showed any sign that life was anything more than a burden to be endured. His Bible was his only consolation. The two decisions he had made with his heart rather than his head had cost him all that he held dear in this life, and he would not make that mistake again.
Outside the pump clanged and gushed as Dorothea’s father raced through his washing. He joined them, breathless, just as Lorena began to place serving dishes on the table—boiled turnips, sweet corn, stewed greens, bread from the previous day’s baking. Uncle Jacob waited for them to be seated before leading them in prayer. Wordlessly, he served himself a heaping spoonful of turnips and passed the dish to Robert on his left, repeating with each of Lorena’s dishes in turn. He spoke only to ask for butter for his bread; at a glance from her mother, Dorothea hurried to fetch it from the cool of the cellar.
By the time she returned, Uncle Jacob had sated his hunger enough to engage her father in a discussion about the crops. The threshers had sent a man over early that day to report that they would arrive the next morning, as scheduled. “We lost an acre of wheat because of you,” said Uncle Jacob. “Why you could not have waited another week for your trip down South is beyond me. We’ll need to work day and night to make up for the time you wasted.”
“Except for Sunday afternoon,” said Dorothea’s mother. “There is a social in town to welcome Mr. Thomas Nelson, and we are expected.”
“A social?” Uncle Jacob shook his head. “What fool planned a social for the middle of harvest?”
“The mayor, I believe. And the school board.”
“What nonsense. No one will attend, not at this time of year. Likely not even Thomas Nelson would care to interrupt his harvest chores for a silly party. If we want to be good neighbors, we should leave him in peace to finish his work.”
“We must have some representative of the family present,” said Robert. “Dorothea, at least, ought to meet with Mr. Nelson, as he is to take over as schoolmaster.”
Uncle Jacob looked Dorothea squarely in the eye. “You said nothing of being replaced.”
“I learned of it only today.”
“Your wages will be sorely missed.” Uncle Jacob took a bite of greens and chewed slowly, thinking. “Very well. Dorothea must go, and since she cannot go unescorted, you two must accompany her. Fortunately, I see nothing requiring my presence.” He regarded Dorothea again. “Do you think you can be gracious to this man who is taking your situation when he likely has no real need of it?”
Surprised, Dorothea said, “I believe I can manage to be civil.”
“Then it’s settled. I’m sure you won’t do anything to shame this family.” Uncle Jacob wiped his lips, set his fork and knife neatly on the edge of his plate, and pushed back his chair. “You worked hard as you always do, Dorothea, but they made their choice and it can’t be helped. Robert, join me in the barn when you’re through.”
With that, he left.
As soon as the kitchen door swung shut behind him, Robert quietly said, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that was an expression of sympathy.”
“He regrets only the loss of her wages.” Lorena began clearing the table. Dorothea quickly shook off her astonishment and rose to help.
WO DAYS LATER
put on her best dress and rode with her parents to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Hiram Engle. None of the Grangers had called upon the couple since their marriage six months before, a slight somewhat excused by the fact that they had not been invited. Mr. Engle owned the livery stable and the only hotel in town. Until the former Mrs. Violet Pearson had ensnared his affection a year after her first husband died, Mr. Engle’s prosperity had rendered him a highly desirable bachelor despite his facial tic and ample waistline. Uncle Jacob spoke approvingly of Mr. Engle’s business acumen, but Dorothea’s parents did not care for his politics and avoided spending too much time in his company.
Mr. Engle had offered his livery stable for guests traveling from outlying farms, and from there it was a short walk from the riverfront to the more fashionable street in the center of town. It was not the oldest block; the more modest, wood-frame buildings along Elm Creek were the first to be built when the village that became Creek’s Crossing was settled, but as their owners prospered, they moved their families to more spacious limestone dwellings farther away.
The Engles had hired several servants and a quartet of musicians for the occasion, and as one servant took their wraps, Dorothea glanced through an open doorway and saw that what was presumably the parlor had been all but emptied of furniture to make room for dancing. Several couples danced merrily to a popular schottische, but when Dorothea’s father headed in that direction, her mother took his elbow and steered him toward the publisher of the local newspaper, no doubt to prevail upon him to write another editorial denouncing slavery or supporting woman’s suffrage. On her own, Dorothea decided to stroll through the house in search of her friends before seeking out the hostess and an introduction to the guest of honor.
She found a small group of young men and women laughing and chatting near the punch bowl, friends since her first days as a student at the Creek’s Crossing school. The young men were tanned from long hours in the fields, but the women had endeavored, as Dorothea herself did, to protect their skin from the harsh sun. The condition of their hands revealed their station in life; town girls had smooth, pale hands, while the hands of farm girls were as sun-browned as the men’s faces. Since Uncle Jacob did not permit trips into town for mere social calls, Dorothea had not seen them all together in months, and she eagerly caught up on their news. Apparently her own news had not circulated as rapidly as she had expected; one young man, who had always teased Dorothea for knowing all the answers in class, grinned as he asked her if she planned to send her pupils crawling along the creek banks looking for curious rocks as she had the previous year, or if she had moved on to studying pictures in the clouds. Dorothea strained to betray no emotion as another young woman murmured in his ear, and struggled to smile graciously as he apologized. “Nelson might be a good teacher but he can’t be as clever as you,” he said, and as the others added their assent, Dorothea’s smile threatened to collapse, forcing her to pretend to look around for her parents rather than let them see how much the loss of her position grieved her.
As some of her friends left to join the dancing, Dorothea heard a polite cough and turned around. “Why, Miss Granger,” said Cyrus Pearson, giving her a slight bow and a mischievous grin. “I’m honored by your presence at my party. If I had known your uncle would allow you to have a bit of fun on a Sunday, I would have delivered your invitation myself.”
Dorothea smiled back. “It’s your mother’s party and her invitation to give, but thank you just the same.”
“Quite right,” replied Cyrus, rueful. “It’s not even truly my home, however welcome my stepfather has made me feel beneath his roof.”
“So welcome that you have spent most of the past six months abroad.”
He raised a finger in playful warning. “No more questions, Miss Granger. I am not a plant or insect for you to study.” He offered her his arm. “I see I must ask you to dance before you have me entirely figured out.”
Uncle Jacob would have been offended to see his niece dancing on a Sabbath afternoon, but despite this—or perhaps because of it—Dorothea accepted. It was, as Cyrus had promised, difficult to talk during the lively country dance, and whenever they did have an opportunity, Cyrus kept her laughing with amusing observations about the party. She learned nothing more about his stepfather. If only she could dispense with her obligation to the guest of honor as easily.